Racing the Ironman World Championship in Kona was a dream come true.
Whether it's because of all the work that goes into getting there, a chance to test yourself against the best Ironman athletes in the world, or simply the opportunity to participate in the most storied and recognized IM event in the world, it is one of those races that deep down makes you feel really special.
For me, after 30 years in the sport, it was a combination of all three.
No matter how many Ironman races I do there's always something unexpected. And with all the hoopla that surrounds this race I knew the Big Island would not disappoint. Here are just a few of the things that really stuck out.
The Open Water Coffee Bar1 of 14
You heard that right: there's a coffee bar out in the bay in the days leading up to the race. If you feel a need for a caffeine jolt just head on out and get a cup of Joe. Then you can get back to the business at hand with a little more snap in your stroke.
Vendors, Vendors Everywhere2 of 14
Every IM race has plenty of vendors but nothing like this—it was the very definition of Ironman Heaven. They had tents on Alii Drive where they handed out ice cold drinks while on training runs and rides. There were even a few that set up shop out of vans on the bike course. It was just the thing to help me forget just how hot it was. Well, almost.
Language Skills and Volunteers3 of 14
From the racers to the volunteers, Kona is truly an international event. Everyone is assigned a volunteer to walk you through the transition area to drop off your bags; pretty nice. My German escort, whose English was vastly better than my German, and I did our best to communicate. It must have worked out OK, because everything was in the right place when I needed it.
When did My Feet Grow?4 of 14
There's something about the heat on the Big Island that just seems to rub my feet the wrong way. It was a good thing I brought my old, ready-to-be-retired running shoes or it was going to be a painful, blistered marathon.
Something in the Air5 of 14
Volcanic fog or VOG has been a constant around the Big Island for many years. On March 19, 2008 there was an explosion at Halema'uma'u Crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano which is releasing sulfur dioxide at increased levels and this noxious gas is carried westward over Kona. If you or any member of your party tends to have sensitive sinuses, which apparently I do, you're likely to experience flu-like symptoms. If this happens to you try some flu medicine, stock up on tissues, and don't let it get you down. It may likely be the VOG.
Swimming with the Fishes6 of 14
Hawaii is known for its clear water and great snorkeling but there's nothing like being escorted by brightly colored tropical fish as you cruise through the swim. It seemed as though there were always fish around but it was the huge schools that occasionally made the bottom disappear that were particularly spectacular!
Headwinds in All Directions7 of 14
The nasty headwinds and crosswinds on the climb up to and descending from Hawi are legendary and were expected. But riding into the trade winds from Waikoloa back to Kona on what seemed like an endless gradual uphill were a mental and physical challenge. Be prepared! This was by far one of the toughest points in the race.
Almost Famous, Almost8 of 14
The World Championship has more folks on motorcycles with video cameras than any other race. At one point I found myself riding near 1982 IM Kona champion Kathleen McCartney who, after 30 years, was having a friendly rematch with Julie Moss. The cameras were following her closely for some time and for a while I thought I might make it into the TV coverage. But, unfortunately, I got edited out. Guess I have a face for radio.
Ice Cold Towels Anyone?9 of 14
After suffering with serious foot pain for the last 60 miles on the bike I needed something to refocus my mindset. When I sat down in T2 a volunteer quickly wrapped an ice cold towel over my shoulders and in a moment I was back and ready to go out and enjoy my favorite part of any Ironman race...the marathon.
Widely Scattered Dark10 of 14
The Queen K and the Energy Lab are dark, quiet places after sundown because during the race there are few street lights and minimal traffic. It's kind of eerie because you can see mostly nothing and all you hear is your breath and the sound of your shoes against the pavement. It's almost meditative. Strangely it was my favorite time in the race.
Stoners on the Hill11 of 14
Nothing will jolt you out of that I'm-almost-finished trance like a couple of enthusiastically cheering spectators. As I got closer I found out how they managed to stay motivated after such a long day...guess there's nothing like a good Mary Jane buzz to keep the Ironman spirit alive.
The BYOC Banquet12 of 14
As Ironman awards banquets go, this is the big one. Over half the field were first-time Kona competitors and apparently everyone and their extended families came to see them race. The crowd is massive. My advice is either get there early or bring your own chair if you want a seat.
Fish As Fresh As It Gets13 of 14
The Big Island has a lot of fun places to eat and if you want to sample some of the BEST fresh island fish in the days before or after the race visit the Bite Me Fish Market located in Honokohau Harbor just north of Kona. It's my current favorite casual place to eat. One final word: A friend and consistent Kona competitor once told me that the Ironman races leading up to Kona were about competing but that Kona was about enjoying the day. Based on my experience she was right. Racing on the Big Island among all those great triathletes is the reward. Whether you get there this year or next take good care of yourself out there on the course and enjoy the day. Congratulations! You earned it.